DESCRIBING YOUR OPPONENTS’ CLAIM as irresponsible is a funny way of refuting it. It implies that the claim is probably true, and the would-be rebutter knows it but doesn’t want to talk about it.
The implication is not only that the threatened thing is bad, but that the possibility of it happening should be taken so seriously that it’s better to avoid discussing it at all. We don’t want to put ideas into people’s heads. No one condemns talk about an alien invasion as “irresponsible” because hardly anyone thinks it’s going to happen. It could only be deemed “irresponsible” when a lot of people think it might. That’s the thing about not putting ideas into people’s heads: the ideas are usually already there.
So it was with John Major and Tony Blair’s claim yesterday that Brexit could put the Northern Ireland peace process in danger. Theresa Villiers, who is apparently the Northern Ireland secretary as well as a leading Brexit campaigner, condemned this as “highly irresponsible”. When people try to close down a debate like this, it’s usually because they don’t have an answer they can live with. Villiers could have just said it wasn’t true, that everything would be fine, Brexit or no Brexit. But she couldn’t. That would’ve made her look stupid.
It should be self-evident that anything that drives a wedge between the Northern Ireland and the Republic will put the peace process in peril. The peace process rests on a fragile compromise: on the willingness of Nationalists to accept closer association with the Republic as a proxy for unification, and the willingness of Unionists to tolerate the Republic being treated quite differently to other foreign countries.
Brexit will throw up a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. A real border with checkpoints, passport control, police with dogs – the whole bit. It has to, because that is the logic of the Brexiteers’ own position. We have to control our own borders, remember? How can we control our borders if we have an open one with a European Union country whose borders are, in turn, open to the rest of the EU. Simple, we can’t.
Either we are going to have that border between the Republic, or we are going to put Northern Ireland in some sort of quarantine with an internal border between it and the rest of the UK. Either way, the fragile compromise will be shattered. Nationalists will feel they are back to square one – it will be as if the peace process never happened – or Unionists will be furious that they are not being treated as a proper part of the UK. All hell will break lose. As it will in Scotland if Scots vote to remain and are forced out of the EU by English voters.
There is another possibility, of course: I could be wrong and closing the border may not be necessary at all. But that would mean the Brexiteers were also plain wrong about the effects of the free movement of people. And they’re never going to admit that, are they?
Now, that’s really irresponsible.